In New York City, a very high profile criminal prosecution against the former head of the IMF and French presidential hopeful is coming unglued. It appears that the “complainant” in the case, who claims that Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) raped her in a New York City hotel, no longer has the confidence of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. From the looks of things, the charges against DSK are going to be dropped, though that hasn’t happened yet.
It is strange that this has resulted, as it usually does, in a lot of criticism directed at the District Attorney, especially in the popular tabloid press.
Or is it?
Here it seems the office is doing its job well – maybe a little too hasty at first in obtaining an indictment, but showing the capacity for self-correction is such an unambiguous good in a prosecutor’s office that small faults or flaws should be kept in perspective. The media drum beating which is already occurring is almost enough to make you sympathize with the prosecutor who just plows ahead with a case he knows is lousy because he takes so much political heat otherwise. Almost enough. Not enough: such prosecutors will never get any sympathy from me.
In any case, the tables have now turned somewhat viciously against the accuser, who is essentially being portrayed as a whore and a liar.
In the meantime, the previously noted tape-a-cop fiasco in upstate Rochester, while lacking the sex appeal of the goings on in NYC, may serve to similarly illustrate the nature of this phenomenon: much of it is driven by the political power of the police.
It’s one of those open secrets. The police in New York – elsewhere, too, but especially New York – are so well organized, so well financed, so politically indomitable, such fearsome opponents that no one dares cross them.
Consider the sort of obvious meaning of the sequence of events: a) Emily Good (what a convenient name under the circumstances) videos some Rochester police officers conducting a traffic stop; b) she gets arrested and charged with, you know, whatever, but manages to get the video up on youtube, where it causes a lot of unflattering public exposure for the police; c) her home is mysteriously broken into, but only her stuff is taken, not her roommates’, including the very video device she used to record the cops; d) some activist types rally to her defense and have a meeting, but the police show up and issue a blizzard of tickets; and, e) in the face of the public backlash, the district attorney drops the charges against Good.
You might think that this embarrassing episode might result in some institutional introspection among the police, in the interest of avoiding future similar episodes. But the police are not embarrassed, a moral sentiment and behavioral check of which they are collectively incapable at this point. Nope, they are angry. Their union head, one Mike Mazzeo, held a press conference flanked by 100 officers – count them! – to ritually denounce all their opponents and critics, implausibly invoking well worn police friendly platitudes in the face of indisputable public facts that anyone who can fog a mirror is capable of interpreting.
Will there be political fallout for the district attorney’s office? Oh yes, but you won’t read any articles about just how that occurs. It’s a behind the scenes kind of thing.
The police expect the prosecutors to back them 100% no matter how wrong they are. The police are not afraid to make ridiculous arguments – which is what they did in Rochester, complete with a show of force consisting of 100 perfectly straight (and overwhelmingly white) faces – and if prosecutors have to make such arguments so be it. You’re either on the team or you’re not. You’re either with us or against us. You’re either friend or foe. It applies across the board, in matters great and small.
It is not a matter of right and wrong or truth or justice or any other bullshit thing like that; it’s all about winning and losing. About who has power and who doesn’t. The police have power, and they brandish it flagrantly at the slightest provocation. Want a legal career? Don’t piss them off. Want a journalism career where you get the story before the other guys? Don’t piss them off. Want a political or judicial career? Don’t piss them off.
In starker terms for the less ambitious: want to avoid going to jail? Don’t piss them off.
Cyrus Vance, the relatively new Manhattan DA, has pissed them off before and is now politically imperiled, where his high profile prosecutions “fall apart” from within, with “sources” making quotable quotes for the New York Post.
There are no coincidences in matters like this.
No one in Rochester has yet felt the retaliatory political sting of the police, other than Good and a few harmless “activists”.
But the police can afford to be patient. Those hundred plus faces aren’t as dumb as they look and sound.
Update: Norm Pattis has a different take on the DSK prosecution, to the effect that, well, why don’t lesser accused men get the same prosecutorial scrutiny before they are put in the dock for trial.
It’s a good question, of course.
A little perspective from those who have worked in the underbelly of the system can be helpful. It’s a common practice among “working girls” that when a customer doesn’t pay he is subject to a rape accusation. The usual disposition of such cases is that the complaining witness doesn’t show up to testify and the case is dropped. But in the meantime, the guy who stiffed her is run through the numbers: arrested, picture in the newspaper maybe with the embarrassing details, a night or two in jail until someone bails him out.
It goes away after the complainant doesn’t appear to testify. But the point is made.
After the charges are dropped the hapless man is lectured by his attorney and many times this is his only brush with the law. There has been no conviction, or prison, but this is not a trifle in the man’s life either.
Yet there’s the odd time. For some reason the woman does show up to testify. And the prosecutor, who would probably rather drop the whole thing, prosecutes away. And just like every other time that happens, the usual result is conviction and imprisonment. This can happen to some nobody who doesn’t run the IMF and isn’t in line to be president of France. But it will never happen to the latter guy.
Life is unfair, certainly.
I don’t agree that Cyrus Vance doesn’t get credit for backing off, no matter who he does it for. That he doesn’t back off enough, if that’s true, doesn’t mean we should go at him when he does with a comparative analysis.
Now, I don’t mean to be cynical. But could this have anything to do with the largely internally sabotaged case against DSK? So many law enforcement “sources” feeding information to the press. And now, you know, Cyrus Vance is beaten up and embattled. The New York Times says so.
When a prosecutor backs off because he’ not sure anymore, the criminal defense bar should applaud, cheer, and applaud some more. We need so much more of that. We waste a lot of our time defending cases that should never have been brought in the first place, and a depressingly large number of them result in the worst kind of injustice.
But beyond that, if Cyrus Vance is “embattled” because of an all too typical police vendetta, that is all the more reason to treat him as an esteemed colleague and rush to his defense.
The police should be put in their place. Lawyers outrank them. Or at least, they should.